Reflections On Life As A Language Assistant

16 Oct

As many of you are starting your time as a language assistant in Spain I offer some reflections on my own past experience. The views I share are entirely my own and are meant to serve as a creative way to express myself as well as being a subtle criticism of the North American Language Assistant program in general. I don’t claim to have all the answers on how to improve the program (although I do have many suggestions), nor do I want to start blaming specific people for my experiences because the program’s weaknesses spread from the top down.

I encourage readers to comment about their own experiences (good and bad) to give a more accurate feel for the program. What has surprised you these first few weeks? Do you think your school was well prepared to receive you?

Welcome to Carmona

The explicit graffiti and prison like gates throw me off a bit. I’m looking for a small town’s high school and this isn’t quite what I expected. It takes me a good ten minutes to figure out how to get inside the building—I’m from a small town where people keep their doors unlocked and this buzzer/intercom system is foreign looking and intimidating. Finally, someone rings the buzzer and I sketchily follow him inside.

School or Prison?

I’m greeted by the conserje who, only after two years of working there, I understand to be a mix of doorman, janitor, and office assistant… a jack-of-all-trades. I communicate who I am, thinking that perhaps someone is expecting me on my first day. It’s not the case but he hands me off to the English department with a smile.

Don’t Run For Cover (Yet)

A wailing sound comes out of the loud speakers. I jump and cover my ears. I’m pretty sure the fire alarm is going off but no one seems concerned. After thirty seconds of deafening noise it stops. As I see students and teachers rushing around I realize the horrible sound was just the bell, a signal to change classes. Why it has to sound like a bomb warning is a question I still have.

Students sprint through the small halls to let off energy. The majority of them don’t actually have to change classrooms (the teachers are usually the ones who change) but they aren’t allowed to stay in the classroom alone between periods. So they run, jump, wrestle, and flip while others eat chips, candy, donuts, and sandwiches from the school cafe. They shriek and scream and make passing through a living nightmare, complete with shoves, flying food particles, spilled liquids, and body odors. What should only last three minutes is often drawn out to ten or fifteen, as many teachers arrive considerably late to class. After unlocking the door, taking attendance, checking homework, and quieting the students it’s not unusual to have only thirty minutes left of the hour-long period.

Feeling Useless

The students are talking over me, again. I try to reel them in—“Please, listen! Be respectful!” I ask. But they don’t understand me. The few students that want to listen give me an embarrassed smile of apology on behalf of their classmates. They accept that the majority rules and unfortunately the majority do not want to learn English; they’d rather study for their chemistry test next period. Meanwhile, I’m stuck in front of a class of thirty teenagers, prohibited from addressing them in Spanish, and basically talking to myself. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, I try to make eye contact with the classroom teacher. No such luck, she’s too busy correcting exams in the back of the classroom. The buzz grows louder and I stop trying. Perhaps finally realizing that I am no longer talking, the teacher bangs loudly on a desk and shouts, “Quiet please! Prestad atención!” There is a thirty-second lull in the various conversations and study sessions, and I am suddenly being grilled by thirty sets of eyes that read annoyance. And they told me teaching would be rewarding…

Redemption: The Small Things

It’s 11:00– break time. Call me antisocial but I prefer not to go to breakfast with the other teachers. I use my thirty minutes to disconnect a bit from the chaos and enjoy some fresh air. Carmona is a beautiful town for a walk.

A Beautiful Place to Take a Stroll

It’s a week before the town fair and a woman approaches me. I recognize her as a teacher here, but I don’t remember meeting her. “Lorén!” she shouts, “I hear you don’t have a flamenco dress for the fair so I made you this!” She gives me a handmade pin, a flamenco dancer in a vibrant blue dress. It’s beautiful and unexpected. I wish I could express how much her kindness has impacted me, but I make due with a “Muchisimas gracias! Qué bonito!”

It’s my last week of being a language assistant and after each lesson I explain to the students that my time with them has come to an end. Some look disappointed, others could care less, and the majority is just anxious for the bell to ring (or wail). Occasionally, I get a few questions about what I’ll do next, if I’m going back to the US, and if I’ll ever come back to Carmona. After one class two girls approach me. They thank me profusely for my time with them (which, by the way, was only one hour every two or three weeks) and they apologize for their inattentive classmates. They ask for my email and I give it to them. They express their desire to visit the US one day and I encourage them to immerse themselves in English TV, books, and music. When I say goodbye they start to cry, they are thirteen after all, and it’s touching to see I’ve made some sort of impact.

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15 Responses to “Reflections On Life As A Language Assistant”

  1. Kaley [Y Mucho Más] October 16, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    Interesting reflections! I had similar experiences (as in, no one expected me). I was their first ever language assistant. Also, no one listened to me. It didn’t help that they didn’t understand me either.

    I’d like to hear your suggestions for the program, honestly.

    • Lauren October 17, 2011 at 3:28 am #

      Communication is definitely difficult. Above all, I think that both the auxiliar, director, and bilingual coordinator should be provided with a document explaining in great detail the job position, rules, and expectations so that there is no grey area. I also think that the teachers need a mini training about how to effectively use the auxiliar and should never keep him/her in the back of the classroom sitting at a student’s desk nor should they allow (or force) them to give an entire class while disappearing. It needs to be a joint effort and if the auxiliar is told not to speak Spanish the teacher needs to be there to translate some things when necessary.

  2. Sunshine and Siestas October 16, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    I feel that I got extremely lucky with the school I was assigned to, and other assistants who visited my school thought so, too (so your comments are welcome since you came!). I agree with you that the fault begins way up with the MEC and the admin at the consejería level.

    My students were hand-picked and were some of the most attentive in the town. The teachers were required to have a B2 level of English and spoke less Spanish in class than me. My director would give up her lunchbreaks to work on the Comenius application (and my babies just went to Romania after traveling to France a few months ago). I know I hit the auxiliar jackpot, and it seems unfair to me that there’s isn’t a constant to all of this – I even hinted at wanting to be a consultant on the program.

    Look at it this way: you have beautiful memories with us girls and a wonderful husband. Not all was lost!! See you in a few days, lovely!

    • Lauren October 17, 2011 at 3:33 am #

      Cat, you did get very lucky! Your school was very nice, it had music instead of sirens as the bell, and the people you worked with knew your value and how to use you. I wish the program had hired you as a consultant because someone’s input is necessary in order to improve in the future! I wouldn’t call my experience overly negative nor overly positive. It was like a love/hate relationship and that’s what I wanted to capture in this essay. Some weeks I loved it– especially when I got the students to engage or had some great talks with other teachers, and it definitely allowed me two years of “the good life” in Seville. But sometimes it was difficult and frustrating. Anyway, I wouldn’t change a thing, although I wish they would just hire you already to improve a program that does have potential!

  3. Liz October 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    I, like Cat, feel like I got pretty lucky with my school/teacher/students. However, as organized as things are in my neck of the woods, I still feel like schools are pretty inconsistent. I think (one of) the problem is that in theory, we sound great to the government and schools, but in theory, a lot of teachers don’t always want to give an hour of their class a week up when they could be teaching them grammar or preparing them for the selectividad. I know some people who are only with a class once a month, so is seeing an assistant 6 or 7 times times in a year really helping them?

    Also, my school has hardly any resources when it comes to technology, just because they don’t think it’s worth it for my students (I have a mostly immigrant population at my school). Doesn’t seem fair to me.

    I could go on forever about the shortcomings of this program, but in the end it’s been a positive experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. And Cat, I would love to be some sort of consultant for this, either on the Spain side or on the American side. I think they could really benefit from something like that.

    • Lauren October 17, 2011 at 3:36 am #

      I completely agree. School’s are inconsistent and every teacher has a different attitude about the auxiliar. Some wanted too much of my time while others treated me like the plague (and I think because they were embarrassed about speaking English with a native speaker). The technology is also inconsistent– my school had a small computer lab that I never even saw and the teachers had only two old computers in the lounge that were always breaking, yet the government bought all of 1st ESO laptops. Hmm…

  4. Miriam October 17, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    Lauren,
    I have to agree with most of the things you said. I have only had one week of teaching at each of my schools and my role is very different at each one. At one school, I’m given a topic and expected to come up with something. What, I’m not exactly sure, but it is a bit frustrating. At the other school, I mainly help with grammar and pronunciation. However, I wasn’t expected at either school. IN FACT, someone up there on the program ladder got me confused with another girl that was assigned to my schools and when she resigned, marked me off instead. I felt there are many grey areas, not only in our roles as auxiliares, but also in the whole ‘moving to Spain/ settling in Spain’ process. I’ve been here a month and I still get those ‘what am I doing here??’ moments. Worst of all, my fellow language assistants here in La Rioja and I have found out we may not get paid until December. I really think they should ask for detailed evaluations from each auxiliar to improve the program and make it as great as it can be.

    • Lauren October 17, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

      Hi Miriam! Yeah, we had evaluations but I had to fill it out in front of my director! So, ummm… it wasn’t quite honest! The payment thing is crazy; luckily I never had that problem. It’s not right to do that to people though…

  5. Kyle October 17, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    You do a really great job describing your experience. I especially like the part about the lady making you a dress! What a touching gesture…and how hard it is not to know how to say, “What a touching gesture!” in Spanish 🙂 We’ve all been there.

    • Lauren October 17, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

      Thanks Kyle! And thanks for reading… I read your blog all the time! I want to learn to take pictures half as good as yours one day!

  6. Jessica Alcorn October 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    I worked in a primary school in Madrid and my experience was really positive, I loved my school and the kids. However, I felt like the experience was all over place with the auxiliares, they either had a good experience or a terrible one. This year I am working during some of my hours in secondaria so the change has been pretty rough. I enjoy some days but the majority of the time most of the kids could care less about English or that there is a native speaker in the classroom. Its frustrating because its impossible to keep their attention. Your experience sounds similar! Also since you have moved to Madrid we should meet up sometime!

    • Lauren October 17, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

      Hi Jessica! Thanks for reading! I’ve heard a lot more positive experiences in primary schools. The kids must be cuter! Lets definitely meet up sometime soon.

  7. roamingtheworld October 21, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Lauren. I feel pretty luck so far. I have 5 classes of English conversation where itś just me and 8 students and I have to come up with topics/activities/games each time. So far Iḿ enjoying the freedom. My other 5 classes are with the history teacher and can be a bit boring as I read in English, then the students, then they translate to Spanish and then they continue.

    Surprisingly, they are pretty attentive to both the teacher and to me. My first day I explained when I raise my hand, I need there attention and so far they are attentive when I do this. I think Iḿ lucky that my classes are pretty well behaved. As I know other auxiliars who are in classrooms with teachers constantly yelling and I wonder how any of the kids learn. Class room managment definitely seems to be lacking in Spain. I feel classroom management is half of teaching!

    I agree there should be a document that all schools refer to of the role of a an auxilar. It seems to be different at each school.

  8. roamingtheworld October 21, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Lauren. I feel pretty luck so far. I have 5 classes of English conversation where itś just me and 8 students and I have to come up with topics/activities/games each time. So far Iḿ enjoying the freedom. My other 5 classes are with the history teacher and can be a bit boring as I read in English, then the students, then they translate to Spanish and then they continue. A bit boring at times but, oh well!

    Surprisingly, they are pretty attentive to both the teacher and to me. My first day I explained when I raise my hand, I need there attention and so far they are attentive when I do this. I think Iḿ lucky that my classes are pretty well behaved. As I know other auxiliars who are in classrooms with teachers constantly yelling and I wonder how any of the kids learn. Class room managment definitely seems to be lacking in Spain. I feel classroom management is half of teaching!

    I agree there should be a document that all schools refer to of the role of a an auxilar. It seems to be different at each school.

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    […] I read a blog post from Lauren at Spanish Sabores. She was a language assistant for two years (I think) and after only […]

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